Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Just last week, in my article, I discussed the status of our synagogues as the replacement for the Holy Temple in our midst.  We often refer to our local places of worship as a Beit Mikdash Ma'at, a miniature Temple.  What I find interesting about this designation is that so little of our activities in the synagogue reflect the practices in the Temple.  I understand that we're not going to bring sacrifices, even though it seems that synagogues in Egypt once performed them.  But we also refrain from incense burning (even though many Christians do it) and we, as well, don't display the shew bread.  However, we do have reminders of the Menorah.  There is, of course, the Ner Tamid or eternal light above the aron kodesh, holy ark, in every Jewish house of worship.  Many shuls, especially in Israel, actually light real candles, but just as often we have electric facsimiles.  In most Sephardic synagogues there is a poster called a Shiviti before the chazzan, whose major feature is a depiction of the Menorah.  Why does the Menorah continue to adorn our synagogues to inspire us, while other symbols don't?  What is there about this symbol which continues to fire our imagination?  One could say that it's the pragmatic need for light, but many of the representations of Menorahs don't actually produce light.  So, let's explore this phenomenon, and see if we can shed light on this issue.

            But first a bit of a tangent.  The real menorah topic in our parsha is about the olive oil used for lighting it.  Our Torah reading begins: And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take for you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually (Exodus 27:20).  The symbolism of the oil is famously used as a metaphor for the Jewish people.  One such comparison equates the Jews with oil, because oil always separates from water, just like the Jews remain a nation which dwells apart (Numbers 22:9).  Another well known analogy to the Jewish nation is the fact that the purest oil is produced through crushing the olives over and over again to manufacture an oil which results in the finest flame.  Sadly, our history involves the frequent pounding of our people in the mortar of our destiny, by the pestle of our enemies.  We believe, though, that this also produces a pure product.

            However, I think the continued fascination with the Menorah comes from our interest in the flame.  Although the flame can represent many ideas, like enlightenment or spirituality, and humans have always been fascinated by flames, which can produce an almost hypnotic state, I think the most potent idea comes from Psalm 67.  This poem appears on most Shiviti posters written calligraphically in the form of the Menorah.  The critical passage is right near the beginning of the work:  God be gracious to us, and bless us; and let Your face shine upon us.  The light bathing us in its glow is meant to conjure up the image of God turning towards us with Divine illumination.  It can be said that the quality of any human existence may be measured by the purity of the light they receive from God.  We believe that there are an infinite variety of categories of this light.  The Midrash informs us that the original light produced during the Creation period was so perfect that it was stored away for some future time.  All the light which has existed since then is lesser forms of that original prototype.  It is said that Moshe received a clearer form of light from God than other prophets, akin to that original form.  And the rest of us non-prophets?  Well, we muddle along in a twilight of God's light.                        

            Continuing on this theme, Rav Yehuda Amital OB"M, the late rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon, discussed this issue in 2003.  He explained the difference between the incense and the Menorah.  The incense, which had to be ignited when only that cohen actually doing the burning was in the Temple sanctuary (Heichal), represents those mitzvoth and concepts which we don't understand.  Many Torah laws are a mystery, and we must observe them with the same fervor as those mitzvoth which are crystal clear to us.  The light from the pure olive oil in the Menorah, on the other hand, symbolizes those precepts which we do comprehend.  Even though we still have many mysteries in our religion, they tend to be performed in private.  The public gatherings in our synagogues are more connected to the practices which are clear and enlighten us.  This is, perhaps, the reason we have representations of the Menorah in our places of worship but not the incense.

            The Slonimer Rebbe (Reb Shalom Noach Barzovski, 1911-2000) in his Netivot Shalom, explains that the light of the Menorah wasn't important for its physical flames.  Rather the idea was spiritual.  These flames weren't essential for the light which they cast, but for the mood they motivate.  They represented the glow of Godliness which they were meant to spread.  They contribute to the understanding of the seven character traits (chesed-kindness, gevura-courage, tiferet-splendor, netzach-eternity, yesod-foundation, hod-majesty, malchut-royalty) represented by the seven braches of the Menorah, and ultimately indicate to Israel the inner light of God.  We should intuit from this light the Shechina or Divine Presence, which the Temple embodied.  We must endeavor to embody those traits of purity, kindness and spirituality which those flickering flames inspire us to achieve.          

The famous American writer, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) once wrote:  There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.  I believe that both methods are true.  Our Torah is teaching us that we begin by reflecting the light of our Menorah in our holy places, but eventually we must emerge from our private places to become the candles for the entire world, lighting the way to greater spirituality. 

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